THE GREAT science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once declared that “writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers”. For Nik Turner playing the saxophone is something similar, it is thinking and communicating through his breath and fingers.
Nik Turner, the former flautist, saxophonist, vocalist, and songwriter with the legendary space-rock/prog-rock band Hawkwind is coming to Galway to play The Western Hotel, Prospect Hill, on Friday August 5.
“I may have played Galway a long time ago with Hawkwind in the 1970s and I arranged some gigs in 1990 with might have taken in Galway, but you could say it’s the first time I’ve played according to my memory,” laughs Nik during our Monday morning interview.
For his Galway show Nik and his Space Ritual band will perform Hawkwind classics written by Nik, or co-written with Robert Calvert, such as ‘Master Of The Universe’ and ‘Brainstorm’, as well as other musical incarnations from his long and varied career.
“There will be a lot of variety as I have played with a lot of bands,” says Nik. “People will know me also from Inner City Unit and The Nik Turner Band, so everything will depend on how people in the band feel. We could even have requests from the audience which might make for an interesting variety.”
Nik was born in Oxford in 1940 into a family involved in the theatre, before moving to Kent when he was 13. “Margate was where I mis-spent most of my youth,” he laughs.
This was the early to mid 1950s when jazz was the coolest thing around and rock’n’roll was bubbling under the surface, firing Nik’s imagination in the process.
“I was subject to all kinds of influences - Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie - as well as Bill Haley, Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino,” he says. “I learned to play saxophone at 17 and carried on from there.”
A turning point came in the mid 1960s during a trip to West Berlin where he experienced the then divided city’s thriving free jazz scene.
“I was in Berlin to spend some time with some friends,” Nik recalls, “and I was hanging around in psychedelic clubs, seeing Eric Dolphy play, and meeting German musicians who were expressing the idea that you didn’t have to be technically proficient to express yourself and it sort of expressed an idea I had that I wanted to ‘play free jazz in a rock band’.
“That idea had a profound influence as I was told by a guy in a music shop that 90 per cent of people who came in to buy saxophones said they wanted to play like me. I think it opened the door to experimental music for a lot of people.”
Fired up by the sounds he encountered in Berlin and encouraged to pursue his idea of free jazz with rock, Nik helped put together a band in 1968-69, along with his old friend, the late Robert Calvert, and guitarist Dave Brock - Hawkwind was born.
Hawkwind are a true phenomenon in British music, for 40 years, in various shapes and guises, the band has combined psychedelic rock, blues, proto-heavy metal, free jazz, space rock, and lengthy instrumental jams, often referencing science fiction and space themes in their lyrics and album cover art.
The late 1960s was all about space. The Russians and the Americans were locked in ‘The Space Race’, which culminated in the Apollo moon landings of 1969; the year before Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick had unveiled 2001: A Space Odyssey; Pink Floyd were singing ‘Astronomy Domine’ and ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’; and a generation of new sci-fi writers were producing influential pulp and literature.
“I’d read a lot of American science fiction,” recalls Nik. “I lived near Margate where there was an American air force base and I was hanging around with US airmen who gave me these pulp sci-fi books. Later Hawkwind became involved with [science fiction writer] Michael Moorcock and he turned me on to Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.
“Everybody was talking about space and it was a new direction bands were taking at the time like The Pink Floyd and also the German bands like NEU! and Nektar. It was a whole movement.
“As well as outer space there was also the ‘Inner Space’ journey and meditation. There was a book called Be Here Now by Richard Alpert, who went under the name Baba Ram Das, which gave meditation and yoga poses you could adopt. It was very good and Timothy Leary at the time did an album of the Tibetan Book Of The Dead with Ash Ra Temple. It was all going on.”
Hawkwind’s heyday was the 1970s (although the band and indeed all former members still active in music retain a devoted and fanatical cult following ), and this period produced the hit single ‘Silver Machine’ (1972 ) and the classic live album Space Ritual (1973 ).
‘Silver Machine’ was written by Robert Calvert, but the vocalist on the track was Hawkwind’s most famous alumni - Ian Kilmister, better known as Lemmy, who would later form the mighty metal icons Motörhead.
“He’s great, we get on really well,” says Nik of his former bandmate who was in Hawkwind from 1971 to 1975. “The band had a house in London but it was me and Lemmy who lived there. Some of the other members came to stay from time to time. We had a bit of a commune really.
“I saw him at the end of last year with Motörhead playing a gig at what used to be the Hammersmith Odeon and we had a good time chatting in the dressing room. I asked if he might like to take part in a special Hawkwind reunion show and he said he’s up for it, so it might happen.”
The success of ‘Silver Machine’ gave Hawkwind enough money to allow the ambitious Space Ritual stage show and album become a reality.
“The concept was based on the Pythagorean ‘Music of the Spheres’ with the idea of the band as a space ship which the audience powered,” says Nik. “We recorded several shows on the tour and put it together for a live album.”
The album cover was designed by the late Barney Bubbles, one of the greatest graphic designers of all time. Prominent on the album’s sleeve was a depiction of a curvaceous, goddess like female. The illustration was based on the band’s sole Irish member Stacia Blake, who performed interprative dance at the band’s concerts often wearing nothing but body paint. Today Stacia is back in Ireland and is a professional artist (www.staciablake.com ). “We’re on good terms,” says Nik. “We’ve made provisional arrangements to met while I’m in Ireland.”
With success came controversy for Hawkwind in the form of the 1973 single ‘Urban Guerrilla’, which the BBC felt was “provocative and dangerous” in light of the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain.
“It was a sensitive issue,” says Nik. “The BBC didn’t want to play it, the record company distanced themselves from it, and even the bomb squad came ‘round to our house and pulled up the floor boards looking for explosives. We were even stopped going out of the country under the terrorism act and were held up at customs for 24 hours. It was rather inconvenient.”
Nik was in Hawkwind for two periods (1969 to 1976, 1982 to 1984 ) and since then has maintained a busy solo career both as a touring musician and recording artist. Over the last 30 years he has embraced big band, jazz, punk rock, ska, Latin, and funk, as well as space rock, through the Nik Turner Band, Galaktikos, Space Ritual, Nik Turner’s Fantastic All-Stars, and Inner City Unit.
There have also been collaborations with other artists and performances at the recent Glastonbury Festival. So what keeps him passionate about playing, performing, and exploring all kinds of different musics?
“I find music to be a form of communication and healing,” he says. “The more I play the more I want to use music to touch people and make them feel good. I am happy to play any style and the saxophone is applicable to many different styles. It’s a privilege to play music for people. That’s what drives me.”
For more information and tickets to Nik Turner’s concert at The Western Hotel, contact 091 - 562834 or email [email protected]